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Nativity sets are getting a minimalist makeover

<i>Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images</i><br/>View of a wooden Nativity Scene on display at the Christmas Market on the Main Market Square in Krakow
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images
View of a wooden Nativity Scene on display at the Christmas Market on the Main Market Square in Krakow

AJ Willingham, CNN

In the fall of 2020, just before the typical holiday rush, glass artist Lauren Wzorek Earl noticed an unusual uptick in the sales of one of her most popular products. A meme had taken off on Twitter commenting on, of all things, minimalist nativity sets. There was her stained glass version, among other oblong wise men and faceless, rhomboid Baby Jesuses.

I’m weeping,” the tweet read. Weeping, presumably, of laughter.

To be fair, it is kind of funny. After millennia of endless, extravagant depictions of the first family of Christianity, these sleek blocks and blobs are certainly a diversion. While they may elicit a giggle (imagine finding a delinquent wooden block simply labeled “Jesus” between couch cushions), these increasingly popular decorations have plenty of fans — and can spark fascinating conversations about a cherished Christmas tradition .

Nativities then, nativities now

The first known recreation of the Nativity, or the event of Jesus’ birth, is credited to St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. Living up to his name as the patron saint of animals, Francis reportedly did it up big: With the permission of the pope at the time, he gathered some animals in a cave, invited villagers to take a look and preached the story of the birth of Jesus.

Over the centuries, nativity scenes or crèches became an art that could be easily adapted to different cultures and styles, both simple and otherwise. The tableaus feature Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, as well as some assortment of the three wise men, shepherds and various adoring livestock. The roster isn’t biblically accurate, as the three kings canonically arrived on the scene much later. But, like Photoshopping an absent aunt into a family portrait, a little revision makes for a more symbolic whole.

Now, during the Christmas season, one can barely drive to the grocery store without seeing a nativity of some sort, set up in glowing plastic on a front yard or staged by nonplussed children outside of a church. There are nativities made with real gold, frankincense and myrrh, Disney nativities, and nativities so fine they serve as art museum centerpieces.

But what about something … simpler?

Earl, the glassmaker, has been working with stained glass and mirrors her entire career. After taking a break to build her family, she was in need of some new inspiration. It came in 2017 when her sister-in-law sent her a stained glass nativity scene from Europe.

“It included traditional techniques, with soldering and and foils. And I thought, ‘I should adapt this to my style,'” she told CNN.

She filled up pages and pages with sketches, tweaking shapes here, considering color and texture there.

“I didn’t want the piece to be made up of actual human figures,” she said. “So as it evolved, it became a series of shapes that were a resemblance of the scene. I love that you can know what it’s depicting without those specifics. You can let your mind recognize it instead.”

The piece, constructed of textured glass and mirrors, was a hit. Three years ago, the home store West Elm picked up the set as part of its local artists program. It is currently a featured product on Etsy. And yes, every year, people send Earl that same meme from 2020.

“I think it’s funny. I know it’s not for everyone, but it’s a new option for people,” she says. “I’ve had customers who collect nativity sets, or who say they have been waiting for one that really spoke to them. That’s what’s important to me.”

New art meets old traditions

If stained glass and soft lines are still too much for some tastes, there’s also a set of labeled wooden blocks created by Berlin-based artist Oliver Fabel that requires some homework to appreciate. The set, available in either German or English, is inspired by the Bauhaus style of art and architecture. Bauhaus design prizes function over form, employs simple shapes and embraces the possibility of mass reproduction. It’s a well-loved form of design among avant garde enthusiasts, and explains why so many collectors like Fabel’s nativity that, to others, may look like a little set of Lincoln Logs.

In the general market of nativity sets, simplicity of this magnitude isn’t the norm. And yet, from a religious perspective, the scene of Jesus’ birth is one of ultimate humility. In fact, for Christians of many stripes, the very symbol of the nativity is as much about humility as it is about one of the most important events in their religion.

Brooklyn Swenson, an artist in Utah, says she drew on this inspiration for her brightly colored minimalist nativity set.

“Just like the story of Christ’s birth— this nativity is very simple,” she writes on Etsy. “He was born in a simple town, to simple parents, in a simple manger.”

Meaning, aesthetic — or both?

Entire Christmas dinners could be filled with conversations about abstraction and symbolism, on how minimalism seeks to reduce a concept to its barest recognizable form, and how naturally that can be applied to one of the most recognizable scenes in the world. As the dishes are cleared, perhaps the discourse will veer into ornamentation, and how more mainstream nativities, with their gilt edges and fine robes (and indulgently human faces) may pay homage to the symbolic glory of the Christmas story rather than its more humble aspects. By the time things get to whether minimalist design is itself a form of extravagance, the evening’s host will be shoving people out the door.

It’s no wonder those who make and buy these minimalist sets say they’re such a conversation piece.

They’re also a growing trend on craft sites and at craft fairs, and artists like Earl and Fabel say they’ve had to battle off copycat designs, and even take legal action to protect their work in the few years since they’ve become popular. The trend has also inspired sets that toe the line between minimalism and outright absurdity.

Earl says, while people purchase her art for many reasons, she’s noticed a large portion of her sales are to younger customers. She posits that some are keen to start their own version of Christmas traditions, even if it doesn’t look a lot like typical nativity fare.

“I think people like the idea of connecting with art, instead of just a set of figurines, which some nativity sets are,” she says.

Her favorite part of her stained glass nativity is the figure of Jesus, a shy down-turned half circle of mirrored glass.

“I didn’t want to assign a color to that,” she said. “After all, we don’t know what these people looked like. We each have our own idea. And I love the fact that, when people look at the Jesus in this scene, they see themselves reflected back.”

Top image: Lauren Wzorek Earl’s Etsy business, Szklo Glass, sells a modern stained glass nativity set for $170.

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